Pope Francis on April 4 named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington, succeeding Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who served as Washington’s archbishop from June 2006 until October 2018. The appointment was announced in Washington, D.C., by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States. 

Archbishop Gregory will become the seventh archbishop of Washington and the first African-American prelate to serve in that role. He will be installed as the archbishop of Washington on May 21 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“I am deeply grateful to Pope Francis for this appointment to serve the Archdiocese of Washington and to work with all of the members of this faith community,” said Archbishop Gregory. “I look forward to encountering and listening to the people of this local Church as we address the issues that face us and continue to grow in the love of Christ that sustains us.”

In a statement, Cardinal Wuerl said he welcomed the news of Archbishop Gregory’s appointment “with great joy.”

“I join all who appreciate his pastoral abilities, his intellectual gifts and his leadership qualities,” said Cardinal Wuerl who has served as apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Washington since last October. “As the Church of Washington opens a new chapter and looks to the future, we can all, with great confidence and enthusiasm, welcome our new shepherd.”

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory delivers the homily during the annual Red Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington in 2015.The Mass traditionally marks the start of the court year, including the opening of the Supreme Court term. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

Archbishop Gregory, a 71-year-old native of Chicago, has served as the archbishop of Atlanta since January 2005, leading that archdiocese through a period of growth. He is known nationally for his leadership in confronting the clergy abuse crisis, and for his writings and talks on the liturgy and on a range of social justice issues, including supporting the dignity of human life in all its stages, championing the rights of immigrants and opposing racism.

Founded in 1939, the Archdiocese of Washington is home to more than 655,000 Catholics who worship in 139 parishes located in Washington, D.C., and the five Maryland counties of Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s. Each year, the 93 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese educate nearly 27,000 students. The largest non-public social service organization in the region, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington provides shelter, food, counseling, medical care, legal assistance and employment training to more than 142,000 people each year.

Cardinal Wuerl, whose resignation was accepted by Pope Francis last fall, will continue serving as the Archdiocese of Washington’s apostolic administrator until the new archbishop is installed. As required by Church law, the cardinal submitted his resignation to the pope in November 2015 after turning 75.

As archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Wuerl worked to expand educational opportunities for children and services to those in need, encouraged efforts to share the faith, championed the cause of religious freedom, led an effort to plan the Church’s future outreach, utilized traditional and new media to spread the Gospel, and welcomed two popes to the nation’s capital, Pope Benedict XVI in April 2008 and Pope Francis in September 2015. He established the Saint John Paul II Seminary in 2011, the first seminary in the United States named after that saint.

Archbishop Gregory was born on Dec. 7, 1947. As a sixth grader, he began attending St. Carthage School in Chicago, and within weeks decided that he wanted to become Catholic, and by the end of the school year, he had been baptized, confirmed and received his First Communion.

Father Wilton Gregory was ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1973.  A decade later, he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop for Chicago just after turning 36, becoming the nation’s youngest Catholic bishop at that time. 

In 1994, Bishop Gregory was installed as the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, where he served for 11 years, until being named as the archbishop of Atlanta by Pope St. John Paul II.

During Archbishop Gregory’s 14 years leading the Archdiocese of Atlanta, that archdiocese has grown to include 1.2 million Catholics, with nearly 150,000 infants, children and adults baptized, and more than 16,000 people received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Nine new parishes and six missions were established in the Archdiocese of Atlanta under his leadership, bringing the total there to 103 parishes and missions.

Last month at a Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion liturgy in that city, Archbishop Gregory welcomed more than 1,800 people who will become Catholic in the Archdiocese of Atlanta at the Easter Vigil, saying, “Your presence brings more joy to us than I can adequately express… We thank and bless you for wanting to become one with us.”

From 1991-93, Bishop Gregory, then an auxiliary bishop of Chicago, chaired the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, and played a key role in preparing new translations for the Lectionary and Sacramentary used at Mass. He has a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute (Sant' Anselmo) in Rome and has written many articles on the liturgy and given related talks across the country. In Atlanta, he has led annual Eucharistic Congresses that draw more than 25,000 people in what are believed to be the largest yearly gatherings of Catholics in the Southeastern United States.

At last year’s Atlanta Eucharistic Congress, Archbishop Gregory said, “We are not alone in this world. No matter what, we are all together. We need the Eucharist because it is Christ living within us.”

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta celebrates Mass in this file photo from 2009. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

Washington’s new archbishop served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, and was the first African-American and first convert to serve in that role. Archbishop Gregory, who was then the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, led the conference in a nationwide effort to address the clergy abuse crisis, as the bishops implemented the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002. 

“From this day forward, no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States,” then-Bishop Gregory said, as the bishops in 2002 adopted the charter, which includes a “zero tolerance policy” on priests who abuse children.

Under Bishop Gregory’s leadership of the USCCB, the bishops adopted a set of norms for handling accusations of abuse by priests and other church personnel, established a lay board to review how cases have been handled, and commissioned an extensive analysis of the factors involved in the crisis.

This past year, the abuse crisis hit the Archdiocese of Washington in a personal way, as its former archbishop, then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, was investigated by the Vatican for allegations of abuse of minors and sexual misconduct with adults. Last July, Pope Francis accepted McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, ordering him to maintain a life of prayer and penance, and then in February, the pope confirmed McCarrick’s removal from the priesthood.

Last August, Cardinal Wuerl had faced criticism after the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report describing sexual abuse over the past seven decades in in six dioceses in that state, including in Pittsburgh, which was led by then-Bishop Wuerl from 1988 until he was appointed in 2006 as the archbishop of Washington. Cardinal Wuerl defended his record in Pittsburgh, noting that as bishop there he had removed all abusive priests from ministry and inaugurated strict child protection measures.  After the report, the cardinal inaugurated a six-week “Season of Healing” in the Archdiocese of Washington to pray for and support abuse victims.

Archbishop Gregory was recently appointed to a USCCB task force examining further responses to the abuse crisis, as Catholic leaders have called for greater accountability and transparency among the bishops. 

Archbishop Gregory has also written and spoken out against the evil of racism. In 2016 after a series of shootings left minority citizens and also police officers dead, he was appointed chair of a bishops’ task force to address racial issues and promote healing. He urged the bishops to issue a document on racism, and this past fall, the nation’s bishops overwhelmingly approved a new pastoral letter on that topic, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love.”

At a 2017 panel discussion sponsored by Georgetown University’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life on “Confronting Racism in Our Hearts and Our Nation,” Archbishop Gregory noted that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought racism as a spiritual leader, who was “the first one who spoke to the heart of our nation about the spiritual values that were being ignored.”

Archbishop Gregory was installed as the archbishop of Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2005, on the federal holiday honoring Dr. King, and his appointment as the archbishop of Washington was announced on April 4, the day that the civil rights leader died after being assassinated in 1968. In 2006, Archbishop Gregory was inducted into the Martin Luther King Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta. 

Archbishop Gregory, now one of eight active black Catholic bishops in the United States, preached in Ebenezer Baptist Church in 2005, at its sanctuary across the street from Dr. King’s historic church. The archbishop noted, “Here in this place, an extraordinary, prophetic preacher called people of his day and time to see that injustice was incompatible with God’s kingdom. We can do nothing less in response to the injustices of our own day.”

The archbishop has also championed the rights of immigrants, issuing statements supporting citizenship for DACA students who immigrated to this country as children, and opposing the policy of separating families at the United States’ border.

At his installation as Atlanta’s archbishop, he began his homily by speaking in Spanish. Prayers were offered at that Mass in many different languages, and children wearing native dress lined up to greet him. 

“We represent many different ages, races, professions and cultures, but we are all Christ’s people, and we must work to proclaim with joy and conviction the treasures of our Catholic faith and to respond to the challenges of tomorrow,” Archbishop Gregory said at that Mass.

In 2015, Archbishop Gregory established a new Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which he said was an effort to help the Catholic Church there “better understand and answer the pastoral needs of our ever-growing number of diverse parishioners and parochial communities.”

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., the newly elected president of the National Black Catholic Congress, praised Archbishop Gregory’s appointment to Washington,saying, “Archbishop Gregory will be able to identify with, and compassionately serve all of the people of this archdiocese, who represent very diverse ethnic, cultural and social backgrounds. I look forward to working closely with him in his ministry of leading and healing all who make up this Church and this community.”

The Archdiocese of Washington includes approximately 100,000 Catholics of African and Caribbean descent, about 15 percent of the archdiocese's Catholic population. The archdiocese also includes nearly 270,000 Catholics of Hispanic descent, who constitute more than 40 percent of the archdiocese's Catholics. Each week, Masses are celebrated in 20 different languages in the archdiocese, including Spanish-language Masses at 38 parishes and other locations.

Archbishop Gregory has issued pastoral statements opposing assisted suicide and the death penalty. He has also spoken out and written about other life issues including the evil of abortion and the scourge of gun violence, and on social justice concerns including protecting the environment.

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta answers questions after a lecture on the topic "Why Priests are Happy" at a symposium on the priesthood at The Catholic University of America in Washington in 2011. (CNS photoEd Pfueller, The Catholic University of America)

Washington’s new archbishop is no stranger to the nation’s capital. He has celebrated Masses at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, attended many bishops’ meetings in Washington, given talks at The Catholic University of America and at Georgetown University, and delivered the homilies at the Red Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral before the start of the new judicial year in 2002 and again in 2015.

For his motto as a bishop, Archbishop Gregory uses the phrase, “We are the Lord’s,” from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Romans 14:8), to express the Christian belief that in all that people are and in all that they do, they are the Lord’s.

(This article includes information from reports by the Catholic News Service and by the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.)